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Are journalists thinking freely?

While we fully expect partisan opinions from our politicians, we often don’t think about how our views are subtly manipulated by other influences as well.

As I wrote in my previous post, the way in which information is presented to us influences our opinions and shapes how we think about things.

The average American goes to his favorite news service to interpret current events for him. That’s fine, provided he understands that it’s not possible to attain a completely objective and fair presentation of the facts from any one source.

With the barrage of information out there, we want to know we have reputable sources to rely upon for our news. Ideally there would be one source that presented a balanced account from multiple points of view. But on the contrary, today’s news outlets helps perpetuate the splintering of American opinion.  Why? It’s an interesting dilemma.

Back at the advent of television, the broadcast spectrum allowed for only a few channels. Networks, if they wanted to compete, needed to attract a diverse audience and couldn’t afford to cater to just conservative or liberal viewers.

Now of course we have a plethora of cable, satellite and Internet options at our disposal. News sources today vie for their own particular ‘niche’ of consumers who think in a certain way. This has encouraged journalists to break free from the restrictions of impartiality, and present stories in a subjective manner to appeal to a specific audience. News and editorial pieces have blurred to the point to where it’s now difficult to distinguish the opinions from the reporting.

In 2005 comedian and political pundit Stephen Colbert created the term “truthy” to satirize the use of emotional appeal as fact. “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts,” says Colbert. “But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist…What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?”

This shift in news reporting has happened slowly over a period of several decades. Imbalanced perspectives are often presented so insidiously that the change in reporting may not be obvious to the average viewer.

When I was in college studying journalism in the early 1980’s, students were trained to produce a story in an inverted pyramid containing the simple who, what, where, when and why without a trace of editorializing or embellishment.

When I grew tired of having any dramatic description or sentiment slashed from my articles, I switched my career path to advertising, which allowed me to use my creativity to persuade people to think a certain way. Because I haven’t been a part of the reporting world all these years, I still look at news stories with a classic eye, wanting to pull out the red pen and deleting all that is subjective and misleading.

Which stories are selected to run is just as important as how the stories are presented. For example, in a USA Today series on gun control, nearly every story was written from the viewpoint of those who supported stricter gun laws. The only gun advocates featured were a manufacturer whose livelihood depended upon guns and those who shot for sport.

Is profit and fun the only rationale for opposing stricter gun laws?

A more balanced and informative series might also include pieces such as these:

·         an article discussing the rapid rise in crime and murder in Chicago, despite the most restrictive gun laws in the country, even though crime has decreased in other parts of the nation with fewer restrictions,

·         a report quoting the results of “most comprehensive survey ever” of police officers, in which 71%  believed that  a federal ban on semi-automatics would have no effect on reducing violent crime, and more than 20% believed a ban would actually have a negative effect on reducing violent crime.

When we are presented with facts from all sides of an issue, we can come to our own more informed conclusions.

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